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Digital tools are increasingly making inroads into Pakistanis lives. No wonder when the government shut down major social media platforms last Friday for some hours, it created an unease. The fact that the brief shutdown came without prior notice only added to the disquiet. The Internet itself wasn’t shut down, but for a lot of folks, social media is the Internet. The episode has left some questions in its wake.

For more than a decade now, the law enforcement authorities (LEAs) have been resorting to blocking cellphone signals in a particular region during “sensitive” occasions. That practice already causes inconvenience to residents of affected areas. The social media’s reach is vast, so its shutting down can’t be localized. Should citizens expect such takedowns to recur every time there is a crisis on the streets?

Because a social media blockade is inevitably national in scale, it will affect many individuals and businesses in the future. There is an increasing number of folks who not only rely on social media apps to stay in touch, but also to engage in business at micro and small levels. The power of social media to do public harm is not in question, but the problem can be dealt by using a scalpel instead of a hammer.

Quite often, it is the citizens that have to pay for inefficiencies in the public sector. There is the power sector, for instance, where paying consumers have to shoulder the burden of systemic losses, thefts and corruption in the form of rising tariff. So might it become a norm for digital sector where incompetence of LEAs in mob-control measures are to be passed on to ordinary citizens?

Some folks are wondering whether the “short ban” was also intended to test the waters. Blocking top social media applications is akin to infringing upon the fundamental rights of those citizens who take to such platforms to exercise their freedom of speech and access information. The government could be taken to court because there are no laws that permit a wholesale ban on entire online platforms.

This action is also bound to have negative impact on the pending framework for social media regulations. The government’s “Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards) Rules” had run into problems with civil society and social media firms last year. The PM last month formed a high-level committee to consult with all stakeholders on the way forward. (Read more: “On social media rules,” published April 2, 2021). Let’s see how things shape up from here on out.

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